Ethics Class in the Canadian Rockies

A reverent letter of gratitude to those who showed us the hunter’s ethic.

 

BY JUSTIN HANLON

 

Three handsome rifles affixed with meticulously zeroed Leupold scopes were held in the steady hands of skilled marksmen, rested intently on a grassy knoll as time froze: a six-point bull lay bedded down in the damp grass, lulled by a full belly and the comfortable weather. This was to be Ty’s bull, and we waited with bated breath as he prepared to squeeze the trigger.

The other day, I had the opportunity to read through an introduction to the ethics of hunting, Beyond Fair Chase, written by Jim Posewitz. I had never read it before, but as I worked through the short chapters I found the contents to be curiously familiar. So familiar, in fact, that I began to reflect on some of the hunts of my childhood.

The trips shared a few common themes. Namely, they were challenging: physically, mentally, emotionally. Dad espoused a tradition of hunting that could only be described as “the high road.” Often referred to as equal parts philosopher and wild man, each hunt for him was – and continues to be – a deliberate challenge, incrementally contributing to the establishment of a steady moral character. And since his kids were his best hunting buddies, we were subject to his deliberate challenges as well. I can’t say that I always enjoyed the character building that occurred on the long excursions into the near and distant backcountry but, with the benefit of hindsight, I am slowly coming to realize what a tremendous gift it was.

Along with the tradition of effort, we got to take part in other customs as part of hunting. There are few remaining rites of passage in Western culture today that mark the progression of a young person towards adulthood; perhaps that’s why some of the hunting traditions that Dad held for us were so meaningful. For example, when we turned 10 and were able to hunt as a junior hunter off of Dad’s tags, the occasion was marked with a custom hunting knife. Later, at 12, when we’d written and passed our hunter safety test, Dad presented us each with our very own rifle. One ceremony for a coming of age, another for achievement.

The trips shared a few common themes. Namely, they were challenging: physically, mentally, emotionally. Dad espoused a tradition of hunting that could only be described as “the high road.” Often referred to as equal parts philosopher and wild man, each hunt for him was – and continues to be – a deliberate challenge, incrementally contributing to the establishment of a steady moral character.

For Dad, these simple values form part of a web that connects us with our history. In the case of hunting, they are traditions that have long been intertwined with the pursuit of survival and provision, and the consequent necessity of stewardship. These traditions tie us to a history of hunter-conservationists that enabled our hunting today. They are reminders and supporters of the hunters’ ethics, which are summed up by Posewitz as respecting the animal, obeying the law and behaving in the right way.

These traditions also contribute to a sense of pride in the manner of the hunt: doing it the right way, so to speak. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Posewitz says the most important measure of how you hunt is how you feel about it, and a prime example is reflected in the following story. Perhaps that is why this particular story arises as one of my favorites.

We paused and sat, breathing heavily, high on the valley side. The horses were tied up just out of sight a few hundred feet below. Dad pulled out his spotting scope and my brother, Ty, and I peered across to the other side of the valley through our binoculars.

Many trips we went on as kids were kind of like pulling teeth because Dad’s an intense mountain man, and we as kids weren’t always as into it as he was. It’s a tough sell as a kid to get out of bed before the sun is up, run around getting horses ready, drive for hours and then commit to many more hours of walking for the chance of maybe seeing something and then maybe getting to shoot, which was of course the most fun part in our young minds. Dad’s exertive form of hunting often just wasn’t that fun for us. It resulted in a lot of great memories now, but there were a lot of mornings that felt like a grind at the time.

Yet this morning had been effortless. I think I even jumped out of bed when my alarm went off. Dad didn’t need to hassle us to get out and get the horses ready. Somehow the whole morning just flowed naturally. We had rolled out of our yard in no time and completed most of the hours-long drive to the trailhead and ride to the mouth of the valley before the sun came up. So, when we had tied up the horses at the edge of the trees and began our long climb upwards, instead of grumbling, I pushed those thoughts aside and carried on up the hill without a word of objection.

As we sat and glassed, I enjoyed the stillness. I was a pensive kid, a quiet introvert, so I always enjoyed the moments when we sat and it was quiet. I would slip into day dreams or marvel at the beauty of God’s creation around me. But these quiet, still moments were always short-lived when hunting. Dad was a man on the move – in every aspect of his life, but especially in the mountains.

He knows he can cover huge amounts of ground on foot; he seems to have a pair of goat legs that never tire. When he views the countryside and its geography, he does not see distance or changes in elevation. He sees simply the abstract advantages the land provides for glassing or harbouring game or making a stealthy approach. He views it all with an eagle’s eye – a general surveying of his campaign map to optimize chances of success. Crossing the distances and climbing the elevations in between are of no consequence. My siblings and I, however, didn’t see the whole, didn’t see the steps as part of some great and ancient game of chase. But instead, with a vision too narrow, we experienced only exertion and effort.

Spending a full day in the saddle or on foot, charging headfirst into into deep and far-flung wilderness with enchanting and mysterious names like Grizzly Basin and Horse-wreck Lake was relaxing and rejuvenating for Dad. Not so much for us kids. We’d heard stories of other kids who went out hunting and sat under a tree eating chocolate bars while they waited for game. Seemed too good to be true. Full disclosure, we got plenty of chocolate bars while hunting because Snickers falls into Dad’s category of “superfood” to support the rigorous pace, but they were generally eaten on the move. At the time we didn’t realize how much we benefitted from Dad’s style of hunting. Sometimes a kid just wants to sit and eat chocolate bars.

No sooner had we settled into our position than we spotted a bull across the valley. The. Hunt. Was. On! Now, there was no difference in how dad felt the experience and how we did. Now, there was a clear and desirous objective and, even as kids, the taking of this animal consumed our whole awareness. Now, my perception of the large distance between us and our objective and the many steps to get there disintegrated, and we followed Dad eagerly as he led us down to the valley bottom and up the other side.

We had climbed to the height of the bull on his downwind side so that he wouldn’t catch our scent. He was bedded down, and there was a soft ridge between us and him that allowed us to sneak ever closer without being seen. Soon we peeked over the edge and could see him only about 100 yards away. This moment was the height of the excitement, when your shaky hands settle the rifle down on a steady rest, and you take deep breaths to calm yourself down. My brother was the one behind the rifle today, but I had been in that situation enough times to know exactly how he was feeling. Though my finger wasn’t on the trigger, I felt it all the same.

The pause before a shot is a critical moment. When we were young, Dad helped us decide when to shoot, but ultimately left the decision up to us as the person behind the trigger. With our eyes being the only ones with the full scope picture, it was up to us to make sure there were no obstacles, that the animal was in a position for a clean shot, that we were calm and confident enough in our ability to make the shot.

There was complete silence. Ty pulled the trigger, and the shot echoed through the valley. Though it lasts only an instant, there is always a seemingly endless moment of trepidation after the trigger is pulled where you watch with bated breath to see if the bullet hit its mark. It did. As the echo of the shot became increasingly faint and silence settled again on the valley, the bull remained motionless in the place where it had lain moments before.
The first emotion to rush in at this point was one of triumph. As we approached the animal we congratulated Ty on a deadly shot and each other on a successful hunt. Then Dad called for a moment of reflection. A serious moment that was equal parts sombre and reverent. It might seem odd that such a sombre moment should follow so shortly on the heels of such a jubilant one, but it is very important. Dad always reminded us to take the time to be thankful for the life of the animal, for the exquisite beauty of the landscape around us and, on a grander scale, for the very fact that we had the freedom and the opportunity to spend the day as we had.

Afterwards we participated in the small ritual of waidmannsheil – a German tradition – which Dad had picked up from his guide while hunting in Africa: We split a piece of grass, tucking one piece into the mouth of the bull and the other piece into our own, a way of sharing a last meal with the animal.
I remember being so thankful at that moment for such a great day. That Ty and I had participated in this hunt under our own motivation. That we had been able to share in some of Dad’s passion. That our hunt had not only been successful materially, but also in spirit; we were all in sync, in good spirits, and without friction. There were some hunts where I had put up a fuss or grumbled about the amount of walking. On those days, if our hunt had been successful I always felt odd about it. It would seem somehow wrong to be so excited and satisfied at the outcome of the hunt if I had been so bitter about it earlier in the day. But today I didn’t have to contend with that sort of dissonance. Today, it had been all good, all the way. I reveled in the feeling of an accomplishment, achieved the right way.

Fortunately, this feeling of accomplishment and revelry also extended to the task of cleaning and quartering the elk and to the significant undertaking of carrying the whole animal out of the valley on our backs. We made quick work of the dressing and soon set off down the valley side with the heaviest packs that either Ty or I had ever carried. A full-grown bull elk provides about 300 pounds of meat, on top of the weight of the skull and antlers and a portion of the hide that we’d decided to pack out. With fully laden packs and additional cloth bags of meat in each hand we made our way to the horses. Several hours of scrambling down the valley side and trudging along the valley bottom, punctuated by frequent breaks to catch our breath, led us back to the horses – who faithfully carried the load the rest of the way without so much as a groan.

It was hard work, but it was meaningful, and somehow this rendered the effort of it all to be an extremely enjoyable experience. Perhaps this is the way Dad always feels as he sets off into the mountains. If that is the case, it’s very clear to me why great distances and mountains’ worth of elevation and steep slopes never seem to bother him at all; each journey into the backcountry is just a small part of a bigger journey.

Reflecting on this story while reading Beyond Fair Chase, it became eminently clear why it felt so familiar: I’ve already lived each one of its pages. It’s as if Dad was reading through each chapter in his head as he guided (and dragged) us through the mountains. For instance, Posewitz writes that fitness is a critical element of hunting ethics: you can’t let your own level of fitness (or laziness) prevent you from going the distance to get into the most opportune position for a successful shot. You owe the animal that much. That’s why Dad was relentless in his pace, and why he pushed us to work and train hard. Posewitz writes that the individual behind the rifle has to feel right about taking game when the opportunity presents itself. That’s why Dad would provide whispered coaching but ultimately left the trigger-pull decision up to us. Posewitz urges a commitment to an ethical ending for the animal that requires follow through, and so a watchful silence lingered after the shot while we confirmed it had been fatal.

Finally, Posewitz prescribes a moment of reverence and thankfulness for the animal you have claimed, and so we paused to reflect and appreciate the bounty we had received. Beyond Fair Chase was Dad’s hunting playbook, and he followed it to a tee.

It became very clear what Posewitz means when saying the most important measure of how you hunt is how you feel about it. When we were younger, we knew there was a right way and a wrong way to hunt, but we didn’t know why. Our way was harder than other ways, but we didn’t know why. It was just the way we did things. So often we look back on decisions or actions in the past and think about why we did them, simply coming to the conclusion, “Well, that’s just the way we did things.” Often, though, that realization is tinged with guilt at the fact that the way we had done them, simply because that’s the way things were done back then, was not a very good way to do things at all. Which is why it is so refreshing to look back on our hunting practices now and know that they were conducted rightly and honorably. This ability to to be proud of my past actions – and the discipline and good habits that are a result of the practice obtained through those actions – is a tremendous gift passed on to my siblings and me by Dad and the other venerable men we hunted with, the value of which I am only beginning to perceive.

Our way was harder than other ways, but we didn’t know why. It was just the way we did things. So often we look back on decisions or actions in the past and think about why we did them, simply coming to the conclusion, “Well, that’s just the way we did things.” Often, though, that realization is tinged with guilt at the fact that the way we had done them, simply because that’s the way things were done back then, was not a very good way to do things at all. Which is why it is so refreshing to look back on our hunting practices now and know that they were conducted rightly and honorably. This ability to to be proud of my past actions – and the discipline and good habits that are a result of the practice obtained through those actions – is a tremendous gift passed on to my siblings and me by Dad and the other venerable men we hunted with, the value of which I am only beginning to perceive.

There are many other behaviors that I likely take for granted, even as I’m telling this story, such as the fact that we don’t take reckless pot-shots at game or skimp out on marksmanship practice time. I don’t get out hunting much any more, but suffice it to say that the utility of the habits and disciplines picked up while hunting extend beyond the backcountry. Learning these ethics helps us to walk the delicate path among the pitfalls in life. Much like our long hikes, it is an arduous journey that, through practice and the strong example set for us by those who came before, becomes easier. But we wouldn’t need books written by wise minds like Posewitz if it were easy. The right way doesn’t often come naturally or easily, and that is why I am so grateful for the years of practice, enforced and modelled by Dad, before I even understood what was happening. All those years with the Canadian Rockies as my classroom, my Dad the teacher and our adventures together as the assignments have established a foundation of ethics and character to build upon that extends far beyond hunting.

BHA member Justin Hanlon is the son of North American Board Member Bill Hanlon and grew up building character on the backs of wily mountain horses in the Rockies. He is now an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, stationed on Vancouver Island with his wife and best friend Kayla.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 issues a year right in your mailbox. 

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